I’m sitting in the Griffith University Library at Nathan. It’s the mid-90s and I’m researching an assignment for my Bachelor’s degree. One of my subjects this semester is Aboriginal Studies. I open the study guide and turn to the required reading. As I read, great silent tears start to flow down my cheeks, splashing onto the page below. I don’t sob. There are no histrionics. I don’t make a sound. My face just starts to resemble a waterfall in slow motion. It is the strangest, saddest feeling, and one I will never forget.
In the 1920s and ‘30s it was accepted as inevitable that Aborigines were a ‘dying race’. The only way future generations would know what Aborigines looked like – at least ‘full blood’ Aborigines – was from photographs, preserved skulls and models in museums. But, of course, the museum models needed to be ‘authentic’.
In 1924, the Australian Museum decided to produce an exhibit of Australian Aborigines from live models. It was decided to make three sculptures: a man, a woman and a boy. The sculptures were to be made as realistic as possible by taking plaster casts of the faces of the subjects. This was not the first, nor was it the last activity of its type. The practice went on until at least 1931.
At some point, someone decided that having the subjects close their eyes while the plaster was applied resulted in a less than perfect mould. So, at least in some cases, subjects were encouraged to keep their eyes open during the procedure.
I’ve had a plaster cast made of my face. Even knowing in advance what it involved, and doing it voluntarily it was a ghastly experience I wouldn’t want to repeat. I can only imagine what it was like for Aborigines with poor or no English, amongst people they didn’t know, and having no real idea what was being done to them or why!
I want to scream at the scientists, “Stop accepting the ‘inevitable’ and work to save them! Don’t accept their fate – fight for them!” But no words will come, only tears.
I am sitting in the study room, upstairs at the Nambour public library. I’m researching for my [never completed] doctoral thesis on the history of property development at the Sunshine Coast. Once again, tears begin to flow and I watch silently as the page below becomes wet and bubbled with my outpouring of silent grief. This time I am reading about the massacre of Aborigines at Murdering Creek, near Noosa, in the 1860s.
Details are sketchy, but a contemporary account suggests the massacre was a pre-meditated act, cooked up between a local policeman and the manager of Yandina Station. The motive appears to have been the removal of Aborigines camped near the northern boundary of the station at Lake Weyba.
A party of eight men was despatched to Lake Weyba with orders to shoot the Aborigines camped there. When they got to the lake, one man was sent to stand alone on the bank. When the Aborigines saw him, they took to their canoes and paddled towards him – perhaps expecting a gift of flour or tobacco?
But, as soon as the canoes drew close to the water’s edge, the decoy ran back into the bush while his seven colleagues opened fire killing many and wounding more.
I’m aghast. I’m a Sunshine Coast local. My great great uncle was a pioneer of this area – he could well have been a member of that shooting party. I hope not, but I don’t know. Did no-one speak out? Did no-one try to say, ‘This is wrong!’?
I feel bereft. It happened so long ago but at this moment it seems like it is happening in front of me. I want to run to the bank and scream, “Turn back! Turn back!” But there is nothing I can do. They’re dead and there is nothing to do but cry.
It is 2011, I am sitting in my bedroom chair with my computer on my lap. I’m listening to a live stream of a program on the National Indigenous Radio Service with increasing horror. A woman, Meryl Dorey, who has been proven by the Health Care Complaints Commission to supply false, misleading and biased information, has just spent an hour suggesting that Aboriginal parents should be very wary about vaccinating their children and should try homeopathic vaccines instead. The host, an indigenous man named Tiga Bayles, agrees with her whole-heartedly.
I know the information she is providing is false. I know that homeopathic vaccines don’t work. This is not my opinion. This is scientific fact. Dorey’s figures are bogus, taken out of context or misrepresented. Her propaganda is as misleading and potentially as deadly as the decoy beckoning to Aborigines from the bank of Lake Weyba 150 years ago.
She sounds credible. She sounds friendly. I want to shout, “Don’t listen to her! Don’t listen to her!”
I want to ring in, but I don’t. I’m not a doctor or a scientist. Surely some doctor will call in to refute her claims. I don’t want to take a precious time slot that might have gone to someone with more knowledge than me. I sit on my hands to stop myself picking up the phone.
But the end of the show is drawing near, and no doctor has called in – or been able to get through? – so I call the station. The phone rings out. I try again and the host answers. I plead to be given a moment on air to refute Mrs Dorey’s claims and point out she has been shown to be an unreliable and discredited source of information on vaccination. Tiga Bayles says, “You’re too late, the show’s over.”
I try to explain to him that he’s been deceived. My voice is surprisingly calm as I try desperately to reason with him, but my heart is beating out of my chest. I’m envisaging an outbreak of measles or whooping cough in an Aboriginal family or community. I’m seeing children breaking their ribs from coughing, babies with encephalitis or pneumonia – both complications from measles. I’m picturing innocent Aboriginal children and precious old people dying from preventable diseases. I have to convince him!
But my efforts are futile. Tiga Bayles knows far more than me about the kinds of betrayals that made me cry in libraries during my university studies. He certainly feels them more deeply than I ever could. Understandably, he has a deep mistrust of white, middle-class people like me – especially when we’re defending governments and their policies.
Tiga has more experience of white people than those Aborigines who crossed the lake at Murdering Creek. He knows we have a history of stretching out our hand to Aborigines only to harm them. We are the people who poisoned flour and handed out blankets infected with white man’s diseases. It’s not surprising he thinks vaccines are simply the modern day version of yesterday’s genocidal Trojan horses.
His motives are pure. He wants to protect his children, his grand-children and the children in indigenous families and communities. To Tiga, vaccines are like the decoy on Weyba Lake – they seem harmless, but he knows there are deadly dangers hiding just out of sight. He’s not going to be fooled by white men’s lies and deceptions.
“I suppose you’re one of those people who want to tell us we’re descended from monkeys,” says Tiga as our conversation draws to an end. My heart breaks. I’m not going to convince him. I give in and hang up.
I might as well have tried to throw myself in front of that hail of bullets at Murdering Creek as try to convince Tiga Bayles the decoy standing on the bank is not the government but Mrs Dorey; that the danger lurking in the bushes is not vaccines, but a host of preventable diseases that can wound and kill just as surely as a bullet from a gun.
Now I’m shaking. I notice great round tears are rolling from my eyes and splashing on to my computer keyboard. I don’t sob. There are no histrionics. I don’t make a sound. My face just starts to resemble a waterfall in slow motion. It is the strangest, saddest feeling, and one I will never forget.
Chrys Stevenson is a freelance writer, blogger and a secular and skeptical activist. You can and should follow her blog Gladly, the Cross Eyed Bear.